I planned for this rich hymn to fall on Easter. And it just worked out divinely that I’m sharing this story with you on Good Friday. I have been looking so forward to sharing the story of the man who wrote this hymn. I’m going to start by telling you about Watts’ life then focus on his hymn writing and how he changed church history.
Watts was born July 17th, 1674, in Southampton, England. His father was a deacon of a Congregational Church (a Protestant church which was a system of local independent churches not associated with a larger church government.) England was very strict on this so his father was incarcerated twice for his views that did not align with the Church of England.
He was unable to attend Oxford or Cambridge because he wasn’t an Anglican (Church of England.) He went to the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington (which is now part of inner London.) At twenty after completing his studies he returned to his parents house, spending two years in study to prepare for ministry. Then he lived for several years with Sir John Hartopp as the tutor to his son.
In 1702 at 28 years old, he became the successor and assistant of Dr. Isaac Chauncy, pastor of the Independent Church in Mark Lane, London. During this time he battled a dangerous illness which left him so weak that he required an assistant of his own. He was invited to the palatial home of Sir Thomas Abney for a week. He stayed there for 36 years at Abney House. The house burned down in 1843. I could only find this drawing which I hope is accurate.
He particularly loved the grounds of Abney Park. Watts often sought inspiration there for the many books and hymns he wrote. And there is now a statue of Watts in the Park. Lady Abney watched over Watts with unremitting care. He died after a long illness on November 25, 1748.
Hymns and Spiritual Songs
The hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, was written by Isaac Watts, and published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707. He was just 33 years old when he published the book.
The first edition contained in all 210 hymns, arranged in three books, together with doxologies. in the 3rd book, containing hymns to be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” appeared as number 7. Within two years he wrote 147 more hymns and included them in the second edition that was printed in 1709. We don’t know the specifics of when he wrote When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
It is hard for us to comprehend how revolutionary it was to write a book hymns. It simply wasn’t done in 1707 in England. All denominations in the church were only singing Pslams. There had been writers of hymns before Watts, but none had established a precedent for which he was supposed to conform. It was Watts himself who became the precedent.
Since the Reformation, the idea being that the Psalms of the Bible were inspired by God to serve as the hymn book of His Church for all time. Watts printed these hymns with an essay, arguing that it was the duty of the Church to make new hymns that should express Christian faith in the same degree that the Psalms had expressed the Jewish faith. As you can see in the title page explaining the essay, “Towards the Improvement of Christian Pslamody, by the Use of Evangelical Hymns in Worship, as well as the Psalms of David.” This man is the reason we sing hymns and not just Psalms! What a wondrous legacy he left us with. And with such a rich hymn.
He is recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody,” credited with some 750 hymns. Another famous hymn of his is Joy to the World. He also wrote a book on logic published in 1724. The title is quite lengthy which kinda makes me laugh: Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. He also wrote a book of songs for children. You can still purchase a copy, or download a free copy with beautiful illustrations. In the children’s book, his best-known poems was an exhortation “Against Idleness and Mischief” in Divine Songs for Children. This was parodied by Lewis Carroll in the poem “How Doth the Little Crocodile”, included in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His parody is better known than the original Watts’ poem.
You can print off a copy of the here. Hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend.
1. When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
3. See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did eer such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.